So the two parties are focused on other parts of the federal budget – such discretionary spending and where to cut it – as they rush to put a fiscal deal in place before Aug. 2. Both sides agree that it's a good idea to act by early August, ideally a bit ahead of that Treasury-announced deadline, to avoid a serious funding challenge for the nation. After that, the government won't be able to borrow, by issuing new bonds, unless Congress has raised the debt limit.
The limited scope of the bipartisan talks doesn't mean they are fruitless.
In fact, as lawmakers left Wednesday's meeting members of both parties struck an optimistic tone about the progress being made. The group is meeting at a stepped-up pace (it will gather again Thursday, for its third meeting of the week) with the goal of setting a framework for legislation by July 4.
Still, because some key elements of the budget aren't in play, it appears likely that the resulting legislation will be a partial solution to fiscal troubles. To truly put the national debt on a track of stabilization or decline, those "off the table" elements will almost certainly need to be part of the solution.
Here's a glimpse of the math: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and interest on the national debt currently account for nearly half of all federal spending –and that total is poised to grow substantially if no changes are made. They are comparable to the role that housing, health care, and retirement plans play in the typical family budget.
President Obama's bipartisan fiscal commission proposed last year that the government should aim to cut projected federal deficits by about $4 trillion over the next decade. Independent advocates of fiscal responsibility have embraced that goal as roughly the amount needed to halt the rapid growth of public debt and maintain investor confidence in the US economy.